Portsmouth City Council's own Test and Trace service is helping save lives

IT'S NOT often that the simple act of answering the phone could save someone’s life.

Sunday, 13th December 2020, 12:30 pm

But in the midst of a 21st century pandemic this is now a genuine possibility and with the launch of local coronavirus trace systems across the country it has become even more effective.

Portsmouth set up its own city-specific contact tracing system just over a month ago - as one of the first of its kind in the south east of England.

And now, five weeks on, its tireless team are beginning to see the fruits of their labour.

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Paul Hudson, a Portsmouth contact tracer. Picture: Portsmouth City Council

But first of all, how does it work?

Everyone who is tested for Covid-19 is required to provide contact details to the NHS. If results come back positive the national Test and Trace service then uses these details to try to contact that person over the next 24 hours to tell them to isolate.

The other aim is to get that person to provide further details for anyone they have recently been in contact with - including anyone they live with - so they can also isolate.

However, not everyone is contactable in that time.

Daniel Williams, the Portsmouth contact trace manager, working from home. Picture: Portsmouth City Council

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That's where the locally-run contact trace systems come into play.

So for Portsmouth residents who have tested positive, but were not successfully reached by the NHS, there is an extra three-day period after this where the local team attempts to contact them for the same reason.

Using extra contact details through the council tax register - as well as calling from a local phone number - is thought to be a more successful way of getting hold of people.

Portsmouth council's health and wellbeing boss Cllr Matthew Winnington said local authorities should have been involved in contact tracing sooner. Picture: Sarah Standing (121219-3381)

When the person is then contacted and provides details of anyone they have come into contact with, it is up to a separate national team to trace the others at risk of exposure.

Since the Portsmouth system started on November 4 the overall success rate of contacting city residents is up to 86 per cent.

The team of 15 attempted to trace a total of 287 cases within the first month - averaging about 10 a day. Around 25 per cent of these calls are successful.

Portsmouth's local contact trace service manager, Dan Williams, said: ‘We are dealing with the trickier cases where the national service was unable to make any headway.

‘It's thought locally we stand a better chance because we are able to dip into local sources of data to contact them. And we are using a local Portsmouth number.

‘The number that comes up on people’s phones is the main council number. It's a familiar and trusted number in the city.’

The contact trace team in Portsmouth is made up of council workers - predominantly public health and wellbeing staff - who voluntarily cover shifts while carrying out their regular role on other days.

Like many workers they are based at home at the moment, and during their shifts there can be between two to four of them working at one time.

They all underwent ‘extensive’ training during a two month period in which the system was set up.

Mr Williams, 52, said they are in the process of training more staff. He said: ‘They are all council staff who are volunteering to step out of their main jobs each week.

‘We are in the process of training eight more members so we have got capacity whatever comes our way in January. It’s very difficult to say if things will change but it’s just in case there’s a rise in cases after Christmas.

Mr Williams, a former public health worker, has thanked the public for their cooperation.

‘Everyone has been very civil and very helpful,' he said. 'There have been one or two cases where people have been understandably a little bit fed up with the number of calls that have come through but they understand why we are doing it and why it's important.

‘If people do receive a call from us we really appreciate them taking the time with us and sharing that personal contact information with us - it is not something we take lightly.

‘We are only doing it to help stop the spread of Covid and potentially save lives. We feel we are making a difference. We are always looking at ways we can do this better and will continue to evaluate the service going forward.’

Mr Williams had worked in public health for 20 years but left the council in 2016. He offered to came back specifically to lead the team.

He added: ‘It was really a case of wanting to help. I think a lot of people who previously left the public health profession would have wanted to come back and make a contribution to tackling the pandemic.’

The Portsmouth contact trace team work Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm and between 10am to 2pm on weekends.

Hampshire County Council and Southampton City Council launched their own test and trace services this month.

Simon Bryant, Hampshire council's director of public health, said: ‘Our team will support NHS Test and Trace to contact positive cases in Hampshire and share details of their close contacts on the national database, for NHS Test and Trace to follow-up.

‘The combination of a large scale national operation and local knowledge is a good mix.’

How does the national contract trace service compare?

A CITY health boss praised the local trace team but said local authorities ‘should have been involved in the first place’.

Councillor Matt Winnington, Portsmouth City Council's health and wellbeing boss, said a more localised approach would have placed the city in a much better situation.

He said: ‘The bottom line is if local authorities had been involved from the beginning and worked from the bottom up we would be in a much better situation in terms of contact tracing.

‘Just because we have better knowledge of the area, more contact information for residents and we are able to use a phone number that people recognise.’

It comes as latest figures from the Department for Health and Social care showed the national test and trace service only reached two out of five people in Portsmouth who came into contact with someone who had coronavirus between May 28 and November 25.

According to the data 3,525 people who tested positive for Covid-19 in Portsmouth were transferred to the test and trace service in that time.

This led to 8,697 close contacts being identified over the period – those not managed by local health protection teams, which are dealt with through a call centre or online.

But just 60.9 per cent of those were reached, meaning 3,398 people were not contacted or did not respond

Cllr Winnington added: ‘You will notice the rates of the people who have been in contact with those who tested positive being successfully reached are also not as high because that's also done through a national service.

‘Again that's something we could do better because, for example, if someone who tested positive said they had been to a local restaurant our workers would instantly know whether it’s really high risk or not because they will know whether it's a big restaurant and if it's likely to have lots of customers.

‘It's been really positive having the local contact trace team, it's just a shame it took so long to get going in the first place.’

Across England, 71.3 per cent of contacts not managed by local health protection teams were reached and told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace in the latest week to November 25.

Doing your bit

If you have been contacted by either the NHS or Portsmouth trace service you may be asked to sign in to the NHS Test and Trace contact tracing website.

On the contact tracing website, you'll be asked for information including:

n your name, date of birth and postcode

n if you live with other people

n any places you've been recently, such as a workplace or school

n names and contact details of any people you were in close contact with in the 48 hours before your symptoms started (if you know these details)

If you cannot use the contact tracing website, you'll be asked for this information over the phone.

If you use the NHS Covid-19 app, you can also choose to alert other app users who have spent time near you that they might be at risk.